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Hemp is now ‒ thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill ‒ completely legal on a federal level to cultivate and distribute giving a certain extent of freedom to farmers, retailers, and end-consumers. Subsequently, this freedom has led to a significant surge in the market as the demand for product, especially hemp’s chemical byproduct CBD (cannabidiol), increases. Hemp farming has become one of the most profitable sectors in the agriculture industry as more and more farmers, both novice and experienced, are prompted to grow this famed yet simultaneously unfamiliar crop.
Whether you plan on growing hemp for its grain, fiber, seeds or CBD oils, the cultivation process, from seed to harvest, is the same.
Hemp can thrive in most environments, except for extreme desert climates and high mountain regions. The best growing conditions for hemp, however, are warm-weather areas with well-drained soil rich in organic material. Avoid areas with excessively wet climate or soil, and those that are prone to heavy rain and easily saturated soil. Seek ground with high fertility and low weed pressure.
It is advisable to get your soil tested before you cultivate your crop, especially for high levels of elemental sulfur, potassium sulfate, and rock phosphate levels.
Hemp is a prime plant to grow organically since it doesn’t require a great deal of supplementary nutrition and is reasonably pest- and disease-resistant. Hemp’s growth also tends to outpace that of surrounding weeds, so it doesn’t require a great deal of cultivation by hand like other organic crops.
The growing cycle for hemp is approximately 108 to 120 days, during which these growing conditions should remain relatively stable and consistent.
Seeds Or Clones?
You need to determine whether to grow from seed or plant cuttings (clones).
Seeds will add growing time prior to harvest, but only a seed will produce a tap root which can create a more vigorous and higher yield plant when growing outdoors. However, until more stable seed varieties for cannabinoid production are developed and validated in the field, the variability and potential risk of poor performance or regulatory violation is higher with seed than with cuttings.
The seeds should also be germinated in a greenhouse before planting outside as the technology for direct sow techniques of high cannabinoid hemp varieties has not been fully developed. Machine transplanting on any farm over five acres is recommended.
Also, you will need to continue the practice of crop rotation to ensure soil recovery and prevent insect and disease buildup in the soil.
Plants grown from cuttings have the advantage of being uniform, and with drastically lower variability from plant to plant than with the currently available seed varieties. This reduced variability can be incredibly valuable for large acreage operations as the management of the crop, including processes such as harvesting is more streamlined and doesn’t require modifications in process to account for plant variability.
Another benefit of starting with cuttings is that since cuttings are initially all female plants, the risk of developing male plants or hermaphrodites is greatly reduced. If cuttings are produced with proper techniques in a greenhouse nursery, then the vigor and productivity of cuttings can be comparable to that observed from seed. In summary, the uniformity of cuttings will reduce the risk of variable performance, crop management, and potential regulatory issues.
After about 90 to 100 days in the ground, the head of the hemp plant is considered to have fully matured. As the period arrives, you will start to observe seed heads maturing from the bottom and moving upward to reach completion. Once seed bracts have fully matured, they expose the seeds they contain, allowing you to air dry them naturally. At this point, approximately 100 to 120 days after the seeds were planted, the plant is primed for harvest.
As with seeding machinery, standard combines are adequate harvesting equipment and no other special machinery is required. If desired, you could use a rotary combine with a draper header instead. To minimize fiber wrapping, harvest only when grain moisture is between 12 and 18 percent. Set your combine to settings similar to those for harvesting canola or wheat. To minimize how much fiber enters the combine, cut plants immediately below the head of the grain. Growing conventional (inorganic) hemp, you can expect to yield approximately 1,000 pounds per acre. Yields for organically grown hemp are closer to 500 pounds per acre.
To harvest hemp fiber, wait one or two days minimum after harvesting the grain and ideally until the following spring. Bale hemp fiber at no greater than 15% moisture in big square bales. Expect to yield approximately one to three tons of hemp fiber per acre.
Storage and Processing
Once you’ve harvested the hemp, cleanse all foreign material from the grain and prepare it for storage until the time you’re ready to process it. Make sure it is properly aerated immediately to avoid spoiling. Dry hemp grain to approximately 9% moisture. The best device for drying hemp is a belt conveyor, though you can use an auger as well, as long as you run it slow and full. This will help keep seeds from cracking.
Even though hemp has less than 0.3 percent of psychoactive THC, cultivating it and extracting CBD from it was strictly prohibited by the Federal Government. Even with the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, to grow hemp legally in a US state, you must still contact city, county and local zoning agencies and officials regarding any regulations, codes and conveyances with which you may need to comply. Also, you must make sure that your hemp has less than 0.3 percent of THC, as this is a basic requirement for staying compliant.
You may also need to apply for a permit and register with your state as an industrial hemp grower. To find out if this is required of you before growing hemp, check with your state’s Department of Agriculture.
Prospective hemp farmers may also need to present documentation proving your crops are processed in the state. Note that shipping hemp and hemp products outside of your state is subject to federal laws and restrictions.
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